This article was last modified on May 18, 2014.

Empire Strikes First: The New Afghanistan?

Since the removal of the Taliban regime in late 2001, only one man has been president of Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai. He was not without his controversies and rocky relationship with both the United States and his own people.

The Karzai family had strong political ties in Afghanistan since at least 1919, making Hamid a natural fit to take over the reins. In a sense, his family’s history was the very history of Afghanistan over the past century.

During the days of the Russian invasion in the 1980s, Karzai signed up as a contractor for the CIA, raising funds for the anti-communist mujahideen. While some of the CIA’s backing of these groups came back to bite them (one trained warrior was Osama bin Laden), the strengthened ties of the two nations laid the foundation for where we are today.

But at some point this went sour. Under Karzai’s administration, election fraud reached such a level that Afghanistan’s commitment to democracy is being questioned. The nation is tied with Somalia and North Korea at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Could there be any worse countries to be named with?

Even worse, the CIA connections never stopped. From December 2002 through April 2013, Karzai’s presidential office has received tens of millions of dollars of unregulated “black cash” from the CIA to buy influence from other members of the Afghan government. An unnamed American official told the New York Times, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.” To make matters worse, Karzai had also been receiving millions of dollars in cash from the government of Iran. Talk about your mixed messages…

This year, Afghanistan held its presidential election and Karzai was not eligible to run again. After over a decade of corruption, fraud, political bribes and more, could Afghanistan be turning over a new leaf?

While the election is still in progress (a second round was ordered after there was no clear majority), one front-runner seems poised to take command: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Not only taking 45% in the first round, he has the endorsement of Zalmay Rassoul, the third-place candidate. (As odd as it sounds to Western ears, the man was born with only one name: Abdullah. He is referred to as Abdullah Abdullah by the media in order to give him a “full” name.) Who is this new face?

Abdullah’s father served as a senator under Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, though he never had the strong connections the Karzai family did. One of his appointments included the unglamorous role of administrator for the land survey office.

Rather than get involved in politics, Abdullah excelled as a student and enrolled in medical school, graduating as an ophthalmologist in 1983. He treated residents in Kabul for a few years until the Russian occupation made life unbearable and he fled the country for Pakistan. This was short-lived, however, when tensions became just too great to ignore… his medical expertise put Abdullah in a position to closely align himself with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the resistance fighter credited with expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan.

With the Russian influence eliminated, Massoud became the Minister of Defense and Abdullah worked as an adviser for Massoud. In 1995, with growing popularity, Abdullah became the spokesperson for the Islamic State of Afghanistan. This also earned him a nickname among detractors: the Messenger of Death, because it was his job to announce the death toll of rebel forces.

For better or worse, this post would be short-lived. Just as quickly as the Russians had fled, the Taliban moved in and assumed control in 1996. Massoud was left as the leader of the United Front (commonly called the Northern Alliance) and Abdullah was named his Foreign Minister (the equivalent of Secretary of State). Despite the Taliban’s control, the international community (besides Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates) refused to see them as the legitimate government.

At a European summit in 2001, Massoud stated that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had introduced “a very wrong perception of Islam”. He further warned that his intelligence had gathered information about a large-scale attack on American soil being imminent. How precise his information was is unknown.

Massoud was later assassinated in September 2001 by an al-Qaeda suicide bombing. The timing of his death, making Massoud a martyr, helped the United States recruit from his men to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11. The Americans and Northern Alliance were quickly victorious, and Abdullah was again appointed Foreign Minister (though this time under Hamid Karzai).

Karzai and Abdullah had a difficult working relationship, causing Abdullah to resign in 2005 and run for the presidential seat in 2009. In early rounds he took a respectable 27.8% of the vote, but dropped out before the final round in protest. Abdullah publicly stated that no “fair and transparent” election could be held so long as Karzai was in power (a claim backed up by Transparency International, as noted above). Unfortunately, his decision not to run effectively allowed Karzai to win re-election by default — there were no other serious challengers.

The silver lining? Abdullah immediately formed a new party — the National Coalition of Afghanistan — and in the 2010 elections, they picked up 90 of the 249 seats in Parliament, becoming a strong opposition almost overnight. Their top two goals? The fight against corruption and reform of the Afghan electoral system.

Abdullah has said if he wins the presidency, in his first days “the emphasis would be on security and the rule of law… People should feel from the first day that reform has started. They will feel from the beginning that a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan has started.” He has also shown sides of bridging racial divides. While Abdullah identifies as having Tajik ancestry (a minority that speaks Persian and are of mixed faith), his vice presidential running mate is Pashtun (the majority, which speak Pashto and are Sunni Muslims).

Is this the beginning of a new Afghanistan? With the constant threat of suicide bombings and the presence of resentfully ousted Taliban leaders, security and reform may not come easy. And while Abdullah has noble convictions opposing corruption, the scent of dirty money — whether from America or Iran — is a strong temptation. We must remain hopeful, but our hope must not make us naive.

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